Science Becomes Bureaucracy

Efforts to enmesh scientists in more non-science tasks will only slow progress

Back in 1948, in response to bills establishing the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, Leo Szilard — who first conceived of the Manhattan Project — wrote a short story called “The Mark Gable Foundation.” In this fictional piece, the protagonist, Mark Gable, believes that science is causing too much change too fast, and he wants to slow it down. He is willing to spend money to do so. His advisor in the story thinks there is a simple way to proceed, one that will look supportive while it also will slow and stymie science:

I think that shouldn’t be very difficult. As a matter of fact, I think it would be quite easy. You could set up a foundation, with an annual endowment of thirty million dollars. Research workers in need of funds could apply for grants, if they could make out a convincing case. Have 10 committees, each composed of 12 scientists, appointed to pass on these applications. Take the most active scientists out of the laboratory and make them members of these committees. And the very best men in the field should be appointed as chairmen at salaries of $50,000 each. Also have about 20 prizes of $100,000 each for the best scientific papers of the year. This is just about all you would have to do. Your lawyers could easily prepare a charter for the foundation. . . . the best scientists would be removed from their laboratories and kept busy on committees passing on applications for funds. . . . the scientific workers in need of funds would concentrate on problems which were considered promising and were pretty certain to lead to publishable results. For a few years there might be a great increase in scientific output; but by going after the obvious, pretty soon science would dry out. Science would become something like a parlor game. Some things would be considered interesting, others not. There would be fashions. Those who followed the fashion would get grants. Those who wouldn’t would not, and pretty soon they would learn to follow the fashion, too.

A reminder of this short story arrived in my email box on the heels of a new report purporting to show that the percentage of ground-breaking science is declining, and has been for decades. In fact, the decline appears to begin about the time of Szilard’s story of warning. As the authors explain: